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September 12, 2012

Movie Review – Lawless (2012)


Hollywood has traditionally viewed Prohibition-era bootlegging through an urban lens. Lawless de-familiarizes the story by following the supply route back to its source. Franklin County, Virginia in the early 1930s was, to quote the title of the family history-inspired novel on which the film is based, the wettest county in the country.

The Bondurants aren’t the biggest of the many local producers, but they are the most independent-minded. Their modest local distillery enters the big time when a prominent Chicago gangster (Gary Oldman, in a small but noteworthy part) arrives on the scene willing to pay cash on the barrelhead for a steady source of supply. Standing in their way is another transplanted city man, a state’s deputy (a chilling Guy Pearce) whose ambition and thoroughgoing corruption are entirely out in the open.

The movie’s dramatic heart is the changing but always close relationship between the three Bondurant brothers. Middle brother Forrest (Tom Hardy) is the brains and steadying hand of the operation. Hard-drinking, hard-fighting, easygoing-by-temperament oldest brother Howard (Jason Clarke) is content to play a supporting role. Youngest brother Jack (Shia LaBeouf) chafes under his brothers’ protection and idolizes the famous outlaws of the day.

Jack’s coming-of-age story provides the overarching narrative line. It’s hard not to wish that the focus had been centered on Forrest instead. While LaBeouf’s acting is unexpectedly competent, Hardy is inarguably the abler and more charismatic actor. Hardy’s performance and Nick Cave’s (The Proposition) script share credit for making the complicated Forrest the movie’s most compelling character.

The film is enriched considerably by its only significant female characters. Jack is courting the spirited Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a local Mennonite farmer. Maggie (Jessica Chastain) is a refugee from the seedy underside of Chicago who takes a job at the Bondurants’ cafe/gas station. In simple plot terms she’s Forrest’s love interest, but in a nice upending of convention and audience expectations she’s courting him, and her world-weary strength and beauty are arresting.

There is voiceover narration by Jack in a prologue and epilogue and at a mid-point transition. Despite its comparative brevity, the narration is the movie’s most glaring flaw. Irritating and for the most part redundant, telling us very little that isn’t shown or revealed in dialogue, it betrays an unwarranted lack of confidence in both script and visual storytelling. To give only one of the more obvious examples, the splendid production design needed no assistance in conveying the terrible grinding poverty of the Depression.

The prologue/epilogue narration does go outside the boundary of the main story in giving an unsatisfactory glimpse at the brothers’ past and future. In that respect, it contributes to the subtle sense of incompleteness; a generalized but inescapable feeling that a good amount of material was cut in the transition from page to screen. To a point, the lack of explication is welcome; the carved out spaces within the straightforward narrative allow for a realistic ambiguity of motive and meaning in the characters’ actions. Beyond that point is more story to be told.

3 stars